The last time I watched the animated feature “The Prince of Egypt” was nine years ago, days before my extended family came over for a Passover family seder. The DreamWorks film, once part of my annual childhood holiday ritual, was a subtly deeper take on Jewish identity and personal authenticity than my 13-year old self realized.
I was two months away from having my bat mitzvah. I went to a Hebrew school twice a week, where I learned biblical history and how to read Hebrew characters. I was particularly popular with my Westchester County temple’s rabbi, with whom I shared my theories that God functioned as a manifestation of our conscience.
My extended family didn’t exactly share my enthusiasm for Judaic studies. Case in point: Halfway through the seder my cousin Sam, three years older, tapped my shoulder and whispered, “This God guy seems really full of himself. Why do we have to thank and praise him every other sentence?”
I was horrified. How could God not be good and just?
If God was a manifestation of conscience, did that mean that I wasn’t good?
At 13, I didn’t have an answer for Sam.
But now I do.
Sam was right
These days, I identify as Jewish mostly in my admiration for everything bagels and a good sense of humor. I haven’t gone to a temple service in years. I no longer see God as omnipotent or an unquestionable part of my morality. Yet I still know all my favorite biblical stories by heart.
If I could go back in time, I would tell Sam that he was right about God. And that every person’s flaws in the Passover story—especially God’s—are what make the tale great.
At least, that’s what I hoped to remember when I watched “The Prince of Egypt” once again. The film I watched every year from age 8 to 13, was still the best evidence I could find of the universal value of imperfection. This April marks 25 Passovers since the movie debuted. It’s still the only film adaptation of the Exodus epic to truly lean into its characters’ flaws.
The film’s preference for flawed characters is revealed minutes in, with its characterization of Moses (played by Val Kilmer, with the singing performed by Amick Byram). In the film Moses grew up as an adopted member of the Pharaoh’s family, unaware of his Hebrew background as opposed to the debated but common biblical interpretation that he knew of his identity since he was a young child.
The movie Moses reminded me more of the class clowns from Hebrew school than the righteous prophet from the Bible. They were the kids with the same reckless propensity for fun and a lax attitude toward authority. Still, “The Prince of Egypt” presents higher stakes than my temple in Westchester did. Behavior described in the Bible that I thought was funny is framed in the movie as casual cruelty. When the movie Moses goes on a jaunty chariot ride in his establishing scene as a young adult, his face is rarely shown. The camera instead lingers on the incredible destruction he leaves behind.
After Moses learns about his identity and goes into exile with the Jews, he leans into his destiny to free the Hebrew slaves in Egypt. The scenes depicting Moses’ adolescent years in the Egyptian palace have a painterly quality with stilted, almost angular movements from the characters. In exile, the characters and environments are all curves and fluidity, highlighting the characters’ individual freedom. By the time Moses confronts God and receives his mission, the longing to bring freedom to his people feels palpable because we just spent ten minutes understanding what it looks like. Michelle Pfeiffer’s sultry performance as Moses’ spirited wife Tzipporah certainly helps with that longing.
When Moses returns to Egypt in a shepherd’s cloak and a head of curls to demand his adoptive brother, now Pharaoh Rameses II (Ralph Fiennes), “let his people go,” he finally resembles the character I knew from the Bible. But it was Rameses that caught my attention.
As a kid, I unfailingly had nightmares about Rameses over my 20-something viewings. I don’t know if I was scared more by the reptilian-like way he narrowed his eyes or the jagged edges of impetuousness in his voice. It was probably the unambiguity of Pharaoh’s unscrupulousness in the Bible that amplified my uneasiness the most.
Still, “The Prince of Egypt” doesn’t slip into the Old Testament’s rigid black-and-white morality. On my first adult viewing, I recognized how Rameses’s most primal attributes mirror my own—the desperation to be successful, the tensed shoulders and the fear of abandonment.
Where fear meets grief
Now, watching the film four years after Sam passed away at 22, 23-year-old me realized the voice that once scared me masked a brother’s grief over the Moses he no longer understood.
I called my mother the next day to rave about the film we watched so often together. We discussed the interesting choice that “The Prince of Egypt” made in having Val Kilmer also portray the voice of God—to show that the deity is a manifestation of Moses’ conscience.
Discovering this detail after the years I spent articulating the same theory in Hebrew school should have thrilled me. Instead I just felt sick.
As a child, my favorite part of the Passover story was the 10 Plagues of Egypt that God inflicts before Pharaoh finally tells Moses he will free the Hebrew slaves. During seders, I delighted in recounting this part of the story with silly finger puppets and fake boil stickers my mom got from a temple gift shop.
When I watched the plagues in the film, I was expecting to feel some nostalgic delight. But the plagues weren’t portrayed in the same sanitized way as when I was a kid at the dinner table. In “The Prince of Egypt,” innocent townspeople cry in pain, animals drop dead, half a generation of children are lost in a single night. All this carnage could have been contained to Pharaoh’s household to accomplish the same goal if God’s aim was to have him submit to divine power.
Aside from the horror, I ultimately got what I wanted as an adult viewer—a film that leans into the flaws of each character with such refreshing creative force that it felt comparable to how Moses split open the Red Sea and took his people to the Promised Land.
Still, I might have leaned too far into the sea with this viewing. In my quest to understand the flaws of humans and the almighty, I caught some salt in my throat.